'Living my life like I don’t have cancer:' Despite a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, Maria Pearson continues her barrel racing passion

In the spring of 2012, Maria Pearson was grooming one of her horses when he tossed his head to dispel flies and knocked Pearson in the chest, causing her left breast to swell up. A few months later, she fell off that same horse, broke her hand and tore her rotator cuff. It was a rough few months, to say the least. 

Maria Pearson riding her horse, Spur, this year. Spur was born when Pearson was diagnosed with breast cancer. Photo compliments of Bill Lawless Photography.
Maria Pearson riding her horse, Spur, this year. Spur was born when Pearson was diagnosed with breast cancer. Photo compliments of Bill Lawless Photography.

 

One doctor recommended she get a mammogram, but the mammography technician advised her to wait until the swelling receded to get more accurate imaging. Pearson waited and waited, but by December the swelling still hadn’t decreased and she had developed red lesions on her breast. The pain began around Christmas that year. A month later, she developed a cough, which led to an X-ray that resulted in a referral to an oncologist in Wenatchee, not far from her home in Palisades, where she lives on a cattle ranch. 

By the time she was diagnosed with triple positive, stage 4 breast cancer that had spread to her bones and liver, Pearson, 47, couldn’t walk across the room. A friend of a friend helped her book an appointment at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. “After I left the clinic, for the first time in nine months, I had hope. All these people were rooting for me, from the receptionist standing up and patting me on the back and saying, ‘We’re so excited for you, you’re going to do great,’ to the PA stopping the elevator door before going down and saying, ‘We’re going to take care of you.’” 

Pearson started treatment in April 2013 and within 45 days, her tumor markers plummeted as she participated in a clinical trial delivering two chemotherapy drugs, Perjeta and Herceptin, simultaneously. Overjoyed, Pearson carried on with her life. 

But in 2015, a scan showed some tumor growth. Pearson’s doctor, Dr. Jennifer Specht, changed course, taking Pearson off chemotherapy and trying a hormone blocker, which worked for a while. Then in 2019, Dr. Specht advised radiation therapy. “That cleared things up,” says Pearson. “I was feeling amazing, like I got my life back.” 

Pearson has traveled to SCCA at least every three weeks for care over the last eight years. Earlier this year, Pearson was taken aback when another scan showed that the cancer had moved to her right breast. "It really deflated me because I was feeling so good spiritually, mentally and physically,” she says. 

While the news was discouraging, Pearson felt confident that Dr. Specht would develop the right plan for her. Right from the start, Pearson has been eager to participate in research, opting to take part in multiple clinical trials designed to improve how breast cancer is treated.  

“That speaks volumes,” says Dr. Specht. “Trials are the defining feature of what we do best here.” Most recently, Pearson was part of a high-profile trial that led to FDA approval for a new targeted therapy (tucatinib) for HER2-positive breast cancer. 

SCCA offers all patients the opportunity to participate in clinical trials, if their diagnosis makes them eligible. For metastatic breast cancer patients, trial eligibility depends upon disease status and type of cancer. “Our mission at SCCA is to be involved in developing the next best treatments for cancer,” says Dr. Specht. “When talking to patients, we always present standard of care and the latest research studies as options and choices. 

Having a doctor such as Dr. Specht who is in tune with her preferences has helped Pearson move forward. Unlike many patients, Pearson is not interested in understanding the finer points of her treatment or prognosis

“I don’t want to know every little gory detail about my scans,” she says. “I do better not knowing. Dr. Specht understands me and works with me to tailor my treatments.” 

Dr. Specht is used to patients wanting to know everything and then some, so caring for Pearson has required somewhat of a learning curve. Rather than try to persuade Pearson to become more invested in the details of her treatment, Dr. Specht takes care to provide only high-level explanations. She appreciates that Pearson trusts her to make the right treatment decisions. “It speaks to Maria’s willingness to partner with us,” says Dr. Specht. “She has a level of trust for her team that for us as clinicians is awe-inspiring.” 

Since January, Pearson has been on oral chemotherapy, which is working well. “I have been living my life like I don’t have cancer,” she says. “I don’t look like I have cancer, and I don’t feel like I have cancer.” 

“SCCA has given me my life back,” she says. “They are constantly trying new treatments. They told me they have patients with metastatic breast cancer that they’ve been treating for 20 years who are doing amazing. And they say, ‘Maria, you’re one of them.’”  

In the years since her diagnosis, Pearson has continued to barrel race, a sport she has competed in since she was 23. Barrel racing is a speed event on horseback in which a rider races around three barrels set up in a cloverleaf pattern in the middle of an arena.  

When Pearson was diagnosed, one of her horses, Spur, was born. “There were times as he was growing up that I wasn’t sure I’d be here to ride him,” she says. “I have raised him, trained him to run barrels, and today I am able to compete on him. My team at SCCA is very supportive and ask about my barrel racing all the time. When your doctor knows your horses’ names, that’s pretty cool!” 

To explore clinical trials for breast cancer currently available at SCCA, click here.  

Chemotherapy Treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. It may be given alone or with other treatments. Treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. Chemotherapy may be given by mouth, injection, infusion or on the skin, depending on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. It may be given alone or with other treatments, such as surgery, radiation therapy or biologic therapy. Clinical trial A type of research study that tests how well new medical approaches work in people. These studies test new methods of screening, prevention, diagnosis or treatment of a disease. Imaging In medicine, a process that makes pictures of areas inside the body. Imaging uses methods such as X-rays (high-energy radiation), ultrasound (high-energy sound waves) and radio waves. Mammogram An X-ray of the breast. An X-ray of the breast. A mammogram is a method of finding breast cancer that can’t be felt using the fingers. Mammograms are done with a special type of x-ray machine used only for this purpose. Mammography The use of film or a computer to create a picture of the breast. Metastatic A metastatic cancer is a cancer that has spread to other areas of the body by way of the lymph system or bloodstream. Oncologist A physician who has special training in diagnosing and treating cancer. Some oncologists specialize in a particular type of cancer treatment, such as treating cancer with radiation. A physician who has special training in diagnosing and treating cancer. Some oncologists specialize in a particular type of cancer treatment. For example, a radiation oncologist specializes in treating cancer with radiation. Physician assistant A health professional who is licensed to do certain medical procedures under the guidance of a physician. A health professional who is licensed to do certain medical procedures under the guidance of a physician. A physician assistant may take medical histories, do physical exams, take blood and urine samples, care for wounds and give injections and immunizations. Prognosis A statement about the likely outcome of a disease in a patient. Radiation therapy The use of high-energy radiation from X-rays, gamma rays, neutrons, protons and other sources to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. The use of high-energy radiation from x-rays, gamma rays, neutrons, protons and other sources to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation may come from a machine outside the body (external-beam radiation therapy), or it may come from radioactive material placed in the body near cancer cells (internal radiation therapy or brachytherapy). Systemic radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance, such as a radiolabeled monoclonal antibody, that travels in the blood to tissues throughout the body. Stage The extent of a cancer in the body. Staging is usually based on the size of the tumor, whether lymph nodes contain cancer and whether the cancer has spread from the original site to other parts of the body. Standard care A treatment or other intervention currently being used and considered to be of proven effectiveness based on past studies. Targeted therapy A type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific types of cancer cells while causing less harm to normal cells. A type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific types of cancer cells while causing less harm to normal cells. Some targeted therapies block the action of certain enzymes, proteins or other molecules involved in the growth and spread of cancer cells. Other types of targeted therapies help the immune system kill cancer cells, or they deliver toxic substances directly to cancer cells and kill them. Targeted therapy may have fewer side effects than other types of cancer treatment. Most targeted therapies are either small molecule drugs or monoclonal antibodies.